Release: Friday, September 25, 2015 (limited)
Directed by: Bryan Carberry; J. Clay Tweel
A man wakes up. Man goes to a local auction at an abandoned storage unit; places the highest bid on a smoker. Man opens up said grill only to find part of another man’s leg inside, as if waiting to be barbecued. Man freaks out and calls the authorities to have it confiscated, only to later realize this find could be his ticket to an entirely different kind of life. Man goes on a crusade to fight for ownership of the body part. Man, what the hell . . .
In the backwoods of North Carolina, Shannon Whisnant, an enterprising but surly Southerner — the Man — meets up with John Wood in the parking lot of a Dollar General, hoping to find a way to negotiate with the equally obstinate man who had lost his left leg in a plane crash that also claimed the life of his father, a successful businessman with a lot of clout in the community.
Wood isn’t having any of it though. No sir, not today. Despite never having met Whisnant he harbors a lot of ill will towards him, and it’s sort of understandable. The bitterness between the have’s and the have-not’s manifests as a redneck version of the ideological disputes between the Capulets and the Montagues, sans the romance of course. And despite a bizarre chain of events that saw Wood transferring the leg from the hospital (yeah, they let him take it home) to a freezer in the back of a Hardee’s restaurant and finally to a storage unit he would ultimately relinquish due to nonpayment, Wood’s confident he’s getting the damn leg back.
Finders Keepers is merely the latest inquisition into this beyond ridiculous backyard fiasco. Front-and-center is this battle over who should be awarded legal ownership of the limb — one that plays out both in reality and on reality TV shows and in the tabloids, the likes of which earn the attention of national media outlets, even if they’re more interested in making jokes. But this isn’t the entirety of what Bryan Carberry and Clay Tweel’s strange project represents.
Finders Keepers represents a kind of tug-of-war between two very different social classes. Whisnant, coming from a much poorer background than Wood, recalls childhood memories that cause him to tear up, citing his lack of inclusion at parties thrown at the Wood estate and his many “whoopings” at the hands of his father as low points in his life. We get to know John on a much more personal level as well. His story is similarly one of redemption, and not simply because he manages to get fitted for a prosthetic leg. His battle with drug addiction is embraced head-on, with interviews with relatives providing a strong emotional pulse. The catalyst for his dependency — a morbid fear he would never measure up to his dad’s success — is rather heartbreaking.
There’s a lot of beauty in the bizarre, apparently. As the narrative develops into something more than just another example of why southern stereotypes exist, the more we see how Whisnant’s bizarre discovery has shaped both the lives of the individuals and the lives of their families. Some of the results are surprising while others are, sadly, more predictable. There’s a clear winner and a clear loser here, and the sheer number of sacrifices and poor decisions made on both sides can be difficult to comprehend.
It’s less white trash fodder for the likes of Jerry Springer and Judge Judy than you might think (although funnily enough Judge Mathis‘ gavel becomes a pivotal plot point in the resolution of this custody battle, and Jerry Springer is part of that reality TV charade Whisnant involves himself in). This is a documentary that requires one to set aside personal judgment and biases in order to access the fundamentally human story that exists at the core.
Recommendation: Finders Keepers features an outrageous true story that has to be seen to be believed. The brilliance in the design is that neither party is demonized or put upon a pedestal, but rather uses the objectivity of documentary filmmaking to tell a human story that might be easier to identify with than one might first assume. (Now streaming on Netflix.)
Running Time: 82 mins.
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